Idonije hopes Eurotrip pays dividends

JOSH WEBSTER -- SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 6:01 PM ET

For a guy who was dragged kicking and screaming into the sport, Israel Idonije is sure getting the most out of his gridiron experience.

The Chicago Bears defensive end got his first significant taste of professional football this past spring with the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe.

The Brandon, Manitoba native is now setting his sights at cracking the Bears' opening day roster at their training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois.

All this for a guy who didn't start playing football seriously until he was 16 years old.

As a teenager in Southwestern Manitoba, Idonije's first love was basketball. But he was convinced to join a local nine-man football team, which ultimately earned him an invite to Team Manitoba. It was something that he was ready to turn down.

That was, until his mother intervened.

"I wanted to play basketball in college coming out of high school," explained Idonije. "I got offered to go try out for Team Manitoba and I didn't want to go but my mom, she made me go. That's where it all started."

"Really, she's the one that kind of pushed football on me. She thought I should go try it. But if it was up to me, I would have tried to play basketball."

Had Idonije got his way, perhaps his path would have led him to the NBA. But the way it has turned out, it shows that sometimes mother indeed knows best.

After an accomplished career with the University of Manitoba Bisons which included a Vanier Cup appearance in 2001, two Canada West all-star and CIS first team all-Canadian selections in 2001 and 2002, as well as the J.P. Metras Trophy for outstanding lineman in Canadian university football in 2002, Idonije is now pursuing an NFL career.

His size (he is listed at 6'7'', 290 pounds) attracted a lot of attention both north and south of the border. After a cup of coffee with the Cleveland Browns, Idonije joined the Bears' practice squad in November. He was then allocated to NFL Europe where he got his first true taste of professional football.

Unlike the stereotypical Canadian, Idonije did not strap on a giant-sized backpack complete with a Canadian flag and a plastic Tim Hortons mug when he landed in Europe. It was strictly business on this Eurotrip.

Idonije's time with the Thunder was valuable in that he got to experience football as a pro, getting a first-hand look at the size and speed of the competition. He also needed to get used to the style of four-down football as opposed to the Canadian three-down game.

The running game is used more frequently in the U.S. because of the extra down, and is something not seen as much in Canada since there is one less chance to gain a first down. That and a wider and longer field make the passing game more prevalent in the Great White North.

As a result, Idonije hasn't been in run situations too often in his career.

"I have to adjust my game and be a little better with my run technique and stuff like that and be better with my reads," explained Idonije. "Better because there are more downs that where either you have more of a pass or run option."

Idonije steadily improved as the NFL Europe season progressed, as his statistics suggest. In his first four games, Idonije made only two tackles. But in his last seven games, including World Bowl XII, he was involved in 15 tackles, including three quarterback sacks. He also had two pass deflections.

"I wasn't using my tools as much as I should have," admitted Idonije. "I'm a big guy so I need to play physical football. Later on in the season I started doing that."

Idonije combined for three tackles and had one sack in World Bowl XII. He narrowly missed another late in the game. With the Thunder leading 30-17, Idonije had J.T. O'Sullivan within his sights, but the evasive Galaxy quarterback eluded his grasp when Idonije's foot slipped on the wet turf.

Idonije, with his helmet knocked off, continued to give chase but O'Sullivan scrambled back towards the line of scrimmage and connected on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Lewis.

Idonije didn't hesitate when asked about the one that got away.

"I couldn't believe I missed that one. I couldn't believe he got away."

O'Sullivan might have won the battle on that play, but Idonije and his teammates won the war as the Thunder held on for a 30-24 win. And although a World Bowl title isn't as glamorous as a Super Bowl or BCS win south of the border, or a Grey Cup or Vanier Cup championship in Canada, winning the game was still special for Idonije.

"I played in the Vanier Cup with the Bisons and we lost and that was a terrible feeling," reflected Idonije. "Doing all that hard work, putting all that time in and making it to the end and losing. To get to the World Bowl and win, it's definitely to me is still a great feeling, a great accomplishment. It's on a different level, but it is still very satisfactory."

Idonije is now one of a number of hopefuls attempting to continue the tradition of the Monsters of the Midway at Bears training camp.

"It's going well," said Idonije. "I'm working hard trying to compete and make sure I belong here."

He may not have as much football experience as many of his Bears teammates, but Idonije doesn't think for a moment that it will take longer for him to develop into a professional player.

"No, I'm a quick learner," said Idonije. "If at this point, I'm not getting close to where I should be, I don't know if I'll ever get there."

"Football is just like anything else. The more you do it, the better you get at it. I try to learn by watching, be coachable and stuff like that. I don't think I'm that far off from getting there. On the other hand I still have a lot of work to do. I can always get better. I still got a lot of things to work on and technique stuff that I can improve."

Idonije is not yet a household name, and you would be hard-pressed to find him mentioned in any of the pre-season previews about the Bears.

Some defensive linemen that are grabbing the headlines include a trio of players that the Bears selected in the 2004 NFL draft. Defensive tackle Tommy Harris was taken 14th overall out of the University of Oklahoma while another DT, Terry Johnson, was selected in the second round from the University of Washington. University of Pittsburgh defensive end Claude Harriott was taken in the fifth round.

Another Canadian is also fighting for a defensive end position in camp. Montreal native Alain Kashama was signed as a free agent out of the University of Michigan.

Draft selections tend to get a longer look by coaching staffs than undrafted free agents, which is an obvious disadvantage for Idonije. He's not concerned, however, with the recent additions.

"You can't worry about that kind of stuff," explained Idonije. "(I'm here) to play. You come in and play hard. I can only control what I can control. I'm just going to play football. It doesn't matter what's going on, I got to play football, that's the bottom line."

Ultimately, for Idonije, it's all about playing at Solder Field in September.

"(I want) to get better. I want to make the team. Ultimately I want to be a part of what's going on here, and get on the field. That's what I'm working towards."


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